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According to Muslim belief, Allah, the one uncreated God, has revealed the message of salvation three times. The first time, believers mistakenly assumed the revelation was meant only for them, the chosen people (i.e.: the Jewish community), so it was revealed again through the Prophet Isa (Jesus) but his followers (Christians) erred in believing Isa was the son of the Creator God, an impossibility given that there is but one God. So it was revealed a third and final time as the Koran through the Prophet Mohammed. Thus there are references in the Koran to several biblical episodes, as well as shared beliefs, such as the Day of Judgement, the concept of paradise and hell, tree will, the continuing battle between good and evil, and the messianic promise.

There are two main branches of Islam, Sunnism and Shiism, the latter being further subdivided. Official statistics suggest 99% of Iran's population are Muslim, made up of around 89% Shiite and 10% Sunni. All Muslims, regardless of whether Sunni or Shiite/Shia, are forbidden to drink alcohol or eat anything containing pork, blood or any meat that died in any way other than being slaughtered in the prescribed manner (halal).

Sunni comes from the word sonnat, which means tradition and refers to the fact that the Sunnis follow the traditional line of succession after the Prophet Mohammad. Sunnism has developed into the orthodox branch of Islam and most of the world's Muslims are Sunni, except in Iran.

Shiism reached its greatest influence in Iran. Iranian converts to Islam were attracted by the idea of the imam as a divinely appointed leader possibly because the Iranians possessed a long heritage of government by a divinely appointed monarch.


The Shiis (from Shiat Ali or Party of Ali), who account for slightly over ten per cent of the world Muslim community, live mostly in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, the Arab Peninsula, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

The split between Sunni and Shia dates back to the period of the first caliphs elected after the death of the Prophet in 634. The Shiis do not recognise the three caliphs (khalifa: deputy) who assumed control 632-56 after Mohammed's death, believing that the Prophet had transferred all spiritual and temporal authority to his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, and his descendants through his wife Fatima, Mohammed's daughter. Ali, a popular candidate, was passed over and had to wait until 656 before his election. The reign of Ali is considered by the Shias as a Golden Age, although it did not last long. A first rebellion lead by Aisha, the Prophet's widow, intent on avenging the assassination of the third caliph Osman, was successfully defeated at the Battle of the Camel, near Basra, but was followed by a second revolt lead by the governor of Syria, Moawiya, a cousin of Osman. His army and Ali's met at Siffin, in Iraq (658). As the outcome of the battle seemed uncertain, the two sides agreed to an arbitration which turned in favour Moawiya. Having lost the caliphate, Ali also had to face a further rebellion, that of the Khareji who refused to accept a human arbitration for such an essential question as the succession to the head of the Muslim community, believing that this decision should be left to God alone. Ali defeated the Khareji but was assassinated by one of them at Kufa in 661.

The Sunnis, in contrast, believe that the prophetic mission ended with Mohammed's death and so reject the idea that Ali and his family were divinely guided. Accordingly, they accept the validity of the first three caliphs and other rulers who followed, holding that they are acting in accordance with the sunna (example) of the Prophet.

According to Shia tradition, a movement rapidly formed aimed at restoring Ali's line to the caliphate. It soon became a full-scale opposition movement to the Umayyad dynasty founded by Moawiya, which it considered as having usurped power. The adjective Shia is derived from the name of this movement, the shiat Ali or 'party of Ali'.

In 680, after the death of his brother Hasan, Ali's second son, Hosein, took over the leadership of a rebellion against caliph Yazid. On the way to Kufa, they were forced to camp at Kerbala, an oasis in the desert. On the tenth day of the month of Moharram, the caliph's army attacked them and massacred Hosein and his followers. The list of Shia martyrs, headed by Ali, grew. Hosein became the principal symbol of Shia resistance and of the Shia struggle for justice.

Sunnis and Shias share certain religious obligations (prayer, charity, fasting, pilgrimage and the jehad, or holy war) as well as certain fundamental beliefs: belief in tohid, or the oneness of God ('There is no God but God'), in nobovvat, or belief in the mission of the prophets whose duty is to transmit the will of God and of whom Mohammed was the last in a series; and in maad, the belief in a Judgement Day. In addition to these principles, the Shias believe in adl, the concept of divine justice, and imamat, the principle according to which Ali and his descendants represent the only legitimate authority on Earth until Judgement Day. Only these descendants, the Imams, are empowered to interpret the Quran as they alone retain the secret knowledge revealed to Ali by the Prophet and transmitted from one Imam to the next. The majority of Shias, or Twelver Shias, recognize twelve Imams; the last one, Mohammed al-Muntazar, disappeared around 873, leaving the visible world. His triumphant return will herald the end of tyranny and restoration of justice and peace on Earth. This messianic Imam, known as the Mahdi or 'well directed', remains even in his absence as the sole legitimate head of the community, and the temporal governments that succeed one another can only act in his name, preferably in consultation with the mujtahid, theologians who, after long years of study, are considered authorities in matters of judicial and religious interpretation.

As legitimate successor to the Prophet, Ali is considered to be the First Imam. In principle, the Imam designated his heir during his lifetime and transmitted to him the secrets revealed by the Prophet; in practice, the role of Imam has always passed from father to son, with one exception, that of Hosein, the Third Imam, who succeeded his brother Hassan. For the Twelver Shias, the succession of Imams continued until the Twelfth, but several branches of Shiism do not recognize this. The first to detach themselves were the Zaidis who supported as heir to the Fourth Imam a half-brother of Mohammed al-Baqer, who became the Fifth Imam. The Zaidis ruled in Yemen until 1962. A second, more important, division occurred at the succession to the Sixth Imam, Jafar al-Sadeq, who died in 765. He had designated as heir his son Ismail, but the latter died before his father. After Emam Jafar's death, Musa, a son of Jafar and a slave, was chosen to succeed him, but part of the community still considered Ismail the legitimate heir and refused this choice. They became the Ismailis who recognize only seven Imams, the last of whom, Ismail, also disappeared in the same manner as the Twelfth Imam.

For centuries, in the absence of a Shia government, the survival of Shiism remained precarious. Dispersed Shia communities had settled in centres such as Qom, or Najaf in Iraq where the madrasah taught in accordance with imami beliefs. But persecutions lead the Shias to adopt the practice of taqiya, or dissimulation, which allowed them to hide their faith in order to ensure their own survival and that of their beliefs. Under the Safavid dynasty, in the XVI century, Shiism underwent a renaissance, although Shia knowledge had declined to such an extent that Shah Ismail had to invite mullahs from Lebanon. From then on, Shiism remained the religion of the majority of Iranians although it has faced further difficulties in modern times, particularly under the Pahlavi dynasty, which tried to reduce the power of the clergy. This rivalry between political and religious power theoretically came to an end in 1979 with the establishment of the velayat-e faqih system according to which political power lies in the hands of the religious authorities, and more specifically of the faqih, or mujtahid, specialists trained in jurisprudence.

The 12 Imams

Shiism has several sub-branches but the Twelvers are by far the largest group, and make up the vast majority in Iran. 

Devout Shia Muslims might celebrate the death days of all 12 imams, but most concentrate on the first, Ali, the third, Hossein, and the eighth, Reza - the only one buried in Iran, in the lavish Haram-e Razavi in Mashhad.

The episode that ensured Sunni and Shia would be antagonistic to one another was the massacre of the third imam, Hossein, and his 72 followers in 680. Having set up camp at Karbala, in present-day Iraq, the group was besieged for nine days, and on the 10th Hossein was killed. Hossein's martyrdom is commemorated in a 10-day anniversary that culminates on Ashura. It's during Ashura that the Iranian culture of martyrdom is most evident. It's not unusual to see men flailing themselves with chains or crying genuine tears for their lost hero.

Almost as important is the 12th imam, known as the Mahdi or Valiasr (Leader of Our Time). Mahdi is the Hidden Imam, believed to have disappeared into a cave under a mosque at Samarra in AD 874. Most Shiites believe he lives on in occultation as their divine leader. It is believed Mahdi will eventually return when, with the prophet Jesus, he will guide the world to peace and righteousness.

Shias believe only the imams can truly interpret the Quran and the clergy act as their representatives until the Hidden Imam returns. Ayatollah Khomeini was given the honorary title imam after his death, and when you hear people talking about 'the Imam' today it's usually a reference to him.

It's impossible to say how much the martyrdom of the 12 imams feeds into modern Iranian cultural traits, but martyrdom remains a powerful motivator. During the Iran-Iraq War thousands of men and boys quite literally sacrificed their lives (some cleared mine fields by walking through them) in the name of country and/or religion.

The commonly understood names of the 12 imams in Iran, their birth and death years, and where they are buried:

Moharram and Ashura
The lunar month of Moharram with which the Islamic year begins has a particular significance in the Shia religious calendar: it is a month of mourning, the time to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hosein, killed at Kerbala. The two days known as Tasua (the day preceding the martyrdom) and Ashura (the day of the martyrdom itself), the ninth and tenth ol Moharram, are marked throughout Iran by great celebrations accompanied by processions of the faithful, beating themselves on the chest with their hands or on their backs with chain, laments, and banners. In the villages there are representations of taziyeh, the popular religious theatre. The plays put on enact various episodes of the life and death of Hosein and are performed on open-air stages among a weeping public, carried along by the intense, almost tangible emotion which increases inexorably until the final, inevitable drama, repeated year after year. In other processions, costumed figures represent the various protagonists: Hosein himself and Caliph Yazid; Abbas, Hosein's brother, whose hands were cut off by one of the caliph's soldiers while fetching water from a well to quench his companions' thirst; Shemr, who advanced at the head of the soldiers and attacked Hosein; Zeynab, the Imam's sister; and Ali, his son, the sole survivors of the massacre.